By David Yaffie and Keith Fickel
At Baines Middle School in the Fort Bend Independent School District, our motto is "Dream, Lead, Succeed." The goal is to provide students with learning opportunities that help them see beyond the here-and-now. That includes encouraging them to dream big and to develop the leadership required for their personal success.
Sometimes those learning opportunities are worth traveling for. This certainly is the case with Explore UT, held the first Saturday of March at The University of Texas at Austin. For the fourth year, thanks largely to our Parent Teacher Organization, our students will join 17,000 secondary and primary school students who travel to the event by bus from across the state - including San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Houston, Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley. Another 33,000 people - families and members of the broader community - also are expected to attend.
Explore UT, known as "the largest open house in Texas," opens virtually every department and academic area of the campus for children to experience demonstrations, performances and hands-on activities, as well as university life. These activities are arranged in six broad realms of discovery. They are the arts, engineering, public service, science campus life and business and education.
Initially, we used Explore UT as enrichment for our gifted and talented students, because it provided them a chance to select programs, events and activities that appealed to their unique and varied interests. This year we will expand this opportunity to include students in our at-risk mentorship program. Many of these students have never traveled out of Fort Bend County, let alone set foot on a college campus or even dreamed that attending college is a realistic possibility.
The student feedback we have so far received reinforces the transformational power of attending Explore UT. Our students not only want to return year after year, they are struck by the size of the campus, virtually a small city, and how that contrasts with their experience of being educated in a school consisting of one building.
Last year, one student was impressed by the petroleum engineering exhibit, which showed how technology helps engineers find oil. He was astonished by how engineers use highly technical processes to locate petroleum rather than simple observations of land surface features and educated guesses.
As educators, our primary mission is to help students make sense of as much about the world as we can. And when students can have first-hand encounters with the concepts they are learning in school and with the equipment, facilities and experts found in these fields, these concepts move from abstraction into reality.
Nothing can replace the personal experiences that Explore UT provides for students, regardless of their background or previous exposure to higher education. We travel to Austin each year because Explore UT drives at the heart of our collective endeavor to equip and empower students to "Dream, Lead, Succeed."
Yaffie is the principal and Fickel is the associate principal at Baines Middle School in the Fort Bend Independent School District.